Sunday, August 25, 2013
Multiple attacks by Islamists on St George’s has prompted the Iraqi government to set up three checkpoints to protect the church.
The new security measures make it virtually impossible to attack the building and show “the government here cares about us,” Canon White - known as the “vicar of Baghdad” - says.
However the violence targeted against Christians in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region continues.
This weekend Lord Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi in Britain, warns that the plight of Christians in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt is a tragedy "going almost unremarked".
In an interview with The Telegraph Lord Sacks described continuous attacks on Christian believers and churches as "the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing”.
The Chief Rabbi said being Jewish, “you cannot but feel this very deeply and personally”.
He likened the violence to the persecution faced by Jews in Arab countries following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Canon White too says there is a worrying silence in British public life about the attacks on Christians in Iraq.
“The majority of political and religious leaders still don’t talk about it. The religious leaders seem to be more concerned with who is doing the flower arranging on a Sunday and whether a gay priest is going to be ordained or not.
“Most people have no idea this is going on - they really have no idea at all.”
The situation in Iraq is “considerably different” to other countries in the region because there Christians are not targeted “in any way” by the government. Instead, the biggest threat comes from al-Qaeda.
In the aftermath of the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq 10 years ago Christians were targeted as an alien minority, accused of being in league with the West.
In October 2010, gunmen attacked the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, killing 56 worshippers.
“Christians are so frightened,” Canon White says. “The Christians here are frightened even to walk to church because they might come under attack. All the churches are targets.
“We used to have 1.5 million Christians, now we have probably only got 200,000 left in Iraq. There are more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than here.”
As well as running a medical clinic and food kitchen at St George’s, Canon White leads the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
Through this organisation he arranges summits with Sunni and Shia leaders to help control the violence.
“We have worked very closely with both the Sunni and Shia leaders in order that we can move forward in the right direction and in order that we can get these people to prevent the masses from joining the extremists.
"If we don’t have those meetings then the support we have against violence from the Sunni and the Shia goes away.”
During a brief trip to London this month Canon White met the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a close friend with extensive experience in the field of reconciliation and whose son, Tim, works for Canon White in Iraq.
“I think now we have Archbishop Justin things are going to be different. He really understands and cares about this issue. He is the best news we have had on this subject for years.”
The Archbishop has also expressed concern about the situation in Egypt, where the Coptic Church in Britain says more than 100 Christian churches, properties and individuals were attacked between August 14 and August 22 alone.
In July, Archbishop Welby and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, pledged their “committed solidarity” with the Coptic and Anglican leaders in Egypt amid ongoing violence.
Days later, when the Archbishop visited Egypt he spent time with Dr Mouneer Anis, the leader of the Anglican Church in the Middle East and North Africa.
Dr Anis told the Telegraph that attacks on Christians during the year-long rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, with Mohamed Morsi as president, were collectively worse than the violence experienced by churchgoers in the entire decade beforehand.
Moderate Muslims are also threatened by the Islamist organisation and “are in the same boat as us”, Dr Anis says.
A ban on the Brotherhood had been in place for much of its existence but was lifted after the fall of the former military leader, Hosni Mubarak.
“Some people think that when we say this as Christians we say this because the Muslim Brotherhood are enemies. Not at all.
“When the Muslim Brotherhood came and started to rule Egypt we were hoping that things would get better and the president assured us that things would get better and Christians would get the right to build churches. But nothing like that happened.”
Dr Anis fears that attacks since the overthrow of Morsi, Egypt’s democratically-elected president, in July, are “revenge” for the presence of the Coptic pope at the army’s announcement of its move.
“They attacked churches particularly to take revenge. Pope Tawadros was there on July 3 at the announcement of the removal of Morsi, so they were doing this as revenge [against] the Coptic Orthodox Pope.”
Bishop Angaelos of Britain's Coptic Orthodox Church believes referring to the attacks as "retaliation" risks "inadvertantly justifying" the violence.
"When Morsi was overthrown the Brotherhood wanted a scapegoat and they held the Christians up as a scapegoat," he says.
One Coptic Christian in Egypt, Osama Makram Amin, an electrician in Minya, saw his church burned down on August 14.
An armed mob laid siege to the Bishop Moussa church, then looted and burned the building. It was one of 14 churches, homes and businesses targeted in the city that day, in what appeared to be retaliatory attacks over the security services’ killing of Morsi supporters in Cairo.
Osama says he does not feel safe in Egypt anymore. “My church was burned in front of my eyes, I had to leave my house for two days.”
As a Christian in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, he has grown increasingly worried about his family’s safety.
“I just want to know that I can leave my house and go to work without having to fear about what will happen when I leave,” he says.
He says that although the majority of his neighbours tried to prevent the attack, some turned on him when he tried to intervene.
“I told one man not to burn the school where my children study. He turned around and tried to stab me.”
“Even before the  revolution, I wanted to leave the country. But now I am certain. I want to go to a country where rights are respected, I want a better life for my family.”
He is unimpressed at the level of support that Egypt’s Christians receive from abroad.
“We are not supported enough by the West,” he says “In fact, I think they support the Islamists. But I want to live there anyway, because there they will deal with me as a human being.”